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Chad O'Carroll has written on North Korea since 2010 and writes between London and Seoul.
The military component of the PRC-DPRK Treaty of Friendship, Co-operation and Mutual Assistance is now largely symbolic, a Chinese national security expert told the Asan Plenum in Seoul on Tuesday.
The decades-old treaty – approved in the wake of the Korean War in order to deter an attack on the DPRK – must be renewed by the two countries every 20 years, with the next renewal scheduled for 2021.
But Zhu Feng, director of the Institute of International Studies at Nanjing University, said that far from having any value as a collaborative defense mechanism, the “treaty between Pyongyang and Beijing appears (to be) more symbolic than substantive.”
Responding to a question from NK News about the value of the treaty for Beijing in 2019, the Chinese expert, who also consults independently for the country’s government, said that most people in the PRC would likely see more value in cooperative defense mechanisms elsewhere.
“Even some sort of… Chinese peoples’ preferred choice over treaty allies is Islamabad, rather than Pyongyang,” he said. “So then, it’s very telling evidence, as I mentioned.”
The treaty, therefore, serves more as “some sort of quite incomplete strategic ambiguity.”
“The reason is, (the) security arrangements between Beijing and Pyongyang (are getting) hollower and hollower,” receiving no “real guidance from this treaty.”
“So then I think the treaty is just some sort of carrots dangling before the two countries,” he continued, adding that it could also play a role in “terms of unresolved peace regime build up in the Korean peninsula. ”
Further, Feng added that Chinese surveys suggested “nearly 85% of Chinese respondents don’t know what is really existing between Beijing and Pyongyang.”
As a result, few there know that the DPRK is a treaty ally of China, he said.
The Treaty of Friendship, Co-operation and Mutual Assistance, signed by North Korea’s founding President Kim Il Sung and Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai in 1961, commits the two countries to mutual defense and to intervene to defend the other in the event of war.
But heightened tensions between the U.S. and North Korea in 2017 saw increasing numbers of Chinese experts begin to publicly question whether Beijing would be obliged to defend the DPRK in event of an American military intervention.
Feng’s comments Tuesday, then, are notable: China has not renewed the treaty since 2001, before North Korea’s nuclear testing days.
It remains unclear if it will be automatically renewed in 2021, given the DPRK’s newfound nuclear weapons testing status.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: file photo